The Democracy Component in Israel’s Relations with Arab State

Ksenia Svetlova November 2019
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Something good is happening in relations between Israel and the Arab world, as evidenced by more frequent visits of senior Israeli officials to Arab capitals and conciliatory remarks about Israel by Arab leaders in the Gulf. For the first time since the Oslo era, when several diplomatic missions of Gulf and North African states were opened in Tel Aviv, a real change appears to be taking place in the region’s attitude toward Israel, both on the leadership level and, to some extent, in public opinion. Absent progress in negotiations with the Palestinians, and given the deep freeze in efforts to resolve the conflict, the displays of hostility toward Israel have not vanished, but they have lessened.

In recent years, along with its moves to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern states, Israel has been seeking to expand its links with African states. For example, at a November 2018 meeting with Chad’s President, Netanyahu declared that “Israel is returning to Africa” and hinted at intentions to restore ties with Sudan. The very thought that Netanyahu considered meeting with a man like Omar al-Bashir, who has since been deposed and will soon stand trial for crimes against humanity, generates aversion and concern.

Improved relations between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East and Africa are undoubtedly a positive development, but does every end justify the means and is every regional leader a worthy Israeli ally? This question has been dogging Israeli foreign policy for decades, but has been underscored in recent years given the changes in Israel’s regional relations and their more public dimension.

What is Israel’s policy regarding the warming relations or rapprochement with countries in the region? Do the government and the Knesset conduct significant debate about the emerging ties between Israel and North African and Middle Eastern states?

Let us start with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the government’s defense and foreign affairs activity. In practice, the Knesset’s most prestigious committee has turned into a unidirectional communications channel for senior defense and foreign affairs officials to the legislature, with those testifying before the panel generally failing to answer lawmakers’ questions or providing only partial answers.

In addition, foreign policy issues are relegated to the sidelines of the committee’s agenda with its perpetual focus on defense issues that always appear more important and pressing. The idea of splitting the panel into two separate committees has come up occasionally, but has been discounted.

The State Security Cabinet also appears to be sidelined often and excluded from the decision making loop. For most of the past four years, the Prime Minister has also served as Foreign Minister. His confidante, attorney Yitzhak Molcho often served as his special envoy to Arab states, but was not required to report to the Knesset or the professional levels of government since he was essentially a private individual. The Prime Minister’s power and authority in defense and foreign policy appeared unlimited.

Israel is proud (justifiably so) of being the only democracy in the Middle East. Human rights values are the pillars of Israel’s existence as a democratic state, and must be one of the most important and weighty considerations in formulating policy. What, then, is their weight in determining Israeli foreign policy?

There is no absolute morality in the conduct of foreign policy. Not only that, there is usually an inherent contradiction between morality and the practice of foreign policy since democratic states must maintain contact with non-democratic ones. They must also deal with the fact that such states will use all means at their disposal to promote their interests.

These days, many fans of “realpolitik” in Israel and the world believe that when a state seeks to promote its foreign policy, it should not be fettered by ethical considerations. Prime Minister Netanyahu undoubtedly subscribes to this school of thought. He forges close ties with authoritarian heads of state, sometimes even appearing to prefer them to his colleagues in democratic states. Just as he is not deterred by close links with such leaders, he is not put off by weapons deals with states such as Burma, where authorities are conducting a genocide, according to UN reports.

The murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi provided one of the most obvious examples of Netanyahu’s belief in “realpolitik”. Although US intelligence flatly accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of ordering the hit, President Trump did not sever ties with Riyadh and urged waiting for the findings of the Saudi investigation. Netanyahu convinced Trump to ease US pressure on Riyadh, arguing that the Saudis are an important strategic regional ally.

Much before Netanyahu, Israel conducted relations with “problematic” states, such as South Africa in the apartheid era. Up until the 1970s, Israel had condemned South Africa for the segregation of its black citizens, voted in favor of international sanctions and recalled its ambassador from Cape Town. In those days, Ben-Gurion rejected out of hand any possibility of closer ties with the South African government and adhered to the criticism of its apartheid regime. Following the Yom Kippur War, when many African states severed diplomatic relations with Israel, Israel’s approach changed. Israel felt weak and isolated, shunned by the family of nations, and decided to tighten relations with pariah states such as South Africa.

Israel’s current situation is completely different. Everyone understands that Israel needs good relations with its neighbors in order to ensure its security and sovereignty. That is why policy makers should draw red lines clearly defining what Israel is allowed to do and what it must not do.

Israel must not remain silent in the face of genocide and ethnic cleansing. This constitutes a severe violation of its identity and nature as a Jewish and democratic state. Rigorous judgment must be applied to consideration of arms deals. Clearly, certain states buy weapons not only to defend themselves, but also to kill, and that is why policy makers in the ministries of defense and foreign affairs and in the prime minister’s office must always consider not only financial interests, but also ethical ones. In particularly egregious and troubling cases, when journalists and human right activists are subjected to torture and sent to rot in jail, Israel can use its power and influence to urge the US administration to raise human rights and democracy issues in the region rather than blindly supporting the repressive violence of regimes in the Middle East. The Foreign Ministry has clearly defined red lines to which Israel generally adheres in its relations with radical right European parties. It should formulate similar guidelines regarding Israel’s emerging ties with Middle Eastern and African states, ascribing importance and value to democratic and moral components.

In the legislature, Knesset members must breathe new life into the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and insist on the centrality of Israel’s regional ties for the panel’s agenda. They must demand explanations from senior officials appearing before them and insist on getting answers. The Knesset must also anchor in legislation the Prime Minister’s authority in foreign affairs and defense issues and determine standards to which policy makers must adhere.

Israel is not simply another state in the Middle East. It is the only truly functioning democracy in the region. As a democratic state, Israel cannot shirk the human rights issue. There may not be absolute morality in foreign policy, but conducting a foreign policy devoid of all morality is not an option, either.

Ksenia Svetlova is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute and a former Member of Knesset.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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